Archive for the ‘Suspense’ Category

Review of The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

Monday, October 31st, 2011

The Name of the Star

Shades of London
Book One

by Maureen Johnson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011. 372 pages.
Starred Review

On the same day that Rory Deveaux from Benouville, Louisiana, arrives in London for a year of boarding school, someone decides to imitate the murders of Jack the Ripper. The murders are gruesome and horrible, and keep arriving on schedule, with Rory’s school in the middle of Ripper territory. But the worst part about these new murders is that the victims can be seen on the closed circuit TV cameras posted all over London. But the person murdering them cannot be seen.

Then Rory begins seeing people that her friends don’t see. And on the night of one of the murders, one man in particular talks to her, but her roommate Jazza doesn’t even see him. He knows who she is and where she lives.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because it’s all played out beautifully, with plenty of growing suspense as we begin to figure out, along with Rory, what is going on.

It all leads into a frightening and dangerous confrontation at the end, with a nice twist that assures us there will be more books about Rory. (Though the story in this book is complete, thank goodness! None of that awful “To Be Continued” stuff here.)

Now, call me sheltered, but I had no idea how gruesome Jack the Ripper’s murders were. I thought he just slit people’s throats or something. Using those details definitely raises the stakes in this novel. We want to see the murderer brought to justice, and we don’t want to see Rory fall into his clutches.

The non-paranormal part of the story is entertaining on its own with an American girl trying to fit in at an English boarding school. I fully sympathized with Rory’s horror at field hockey every single day.

I enjoyed the passage where she explains what she learned in the first week:

“Some other facts I picked up:

“Welsh is an actual, currently used language and our next-door neighbors Angela and Gaenor spoke it. It sounds like Wizard.

“Baked beans are very popular in England. For breakfast. On toast. On baked potatoes. They can’t get enough.

“‘American History’ is not a subject everywhere.

“England and Britain and the United Kingdom are not the same thing. England is the country. Britain is the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales. The United Kingdom is the formal designation of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a political entity. If you mess this up, you will be corrected. Repeatedly.

“The English will play hockey in any weather. Thunder, lightning, plague of locusts . . . nothing can stop the hockey. Do not fight the hockey, for the hockey will win.

“Jack the Ripper struck for the second time very early on September 8, 1888.”

This is a well-written novel of suspense, but with lots of fun mixed in. I’m an avid follower of Maureen Johnson on Twitter, where she’s the funniest person ever, so I wasn’t at all surprised to love Rory’s voice. I am not a person who deliberately chooses to read scary books. Yet I thought this scary book was wonderful, and a whole lot of fun. I’m looking forward to future books.

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Source: This review is based on a book I ordered from Books of Wonder, signed by the author.

Review of The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

The Scorpio Races

by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. 409 pages.
Starred Review

I wasn’t sure I would like this book when I read the cover flap, but ended up completely entranced. All my childhood love of The Black Stallion books was aroused. I started it on the way to KidLitCon, and was awfully annoyed when the plane landed and I had to stop. The second night (when I didn’t have a roommate), I kept reading until I finished, because sleep could wait!

Now, I haven’t read any of Maggie Stiefvater’s other books. I’ve pretty much had my fill of werewolf or vampire books, so I didn’t even try them. But this one is about horses — bloodthirsty water horses.

I thought the author had invented a completely new creature, but I learned in the afterword that there is a strong tradition of Manx and Irish and Scottish dangerous water horses. Of course, Maggie Stiefvater took the idea and made it her own. This is no fairy tale retelling, but an intriguing story with mythic elements.

The book begins with a Prologue set nine years earlier. The heading says we’re hearing from Sean, who we soon learn is 9 years old. Here’s how it begins:

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

“Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

“They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.”

As Sean watches his father mount the red stallion, he hopes the capall will remember what Sean whispered in his ear: Do not eat my father.

“I am watching the race from the cliffs when a gray uisce horse seizes my father by his arm and then his chest.

“For one moment, the waves do not attack the shore and the gulls above us do not flap and the gritty air in my lungs doesn’t escape.

“Then the gray water horse tears my father from his uneasy place on the back of the red stallion.

“The gray cannot keep its ragged grip on my father’s chest, and so my father falls to the sand, already ruined before the hooves get to him. He was in second place, so it takes a long minute before the rest of the horses have passed over the top of his body and I can see it again. By then, he is a long, black and scarlet smear half-submerged in the frothy tide. The red stallion circles, halfway to a hungry creature of the sea, but he does as I asked: He does not eat the thing that was my father. Instead, the stallion climbs back into the water. Nothing is as red as the sea that day.”

Then the book begins, nine years later, from the perspective of our other protagonist, Kate “Puck” Connelly. Her parents were also killed by water horses, but not because they were racing. Last Fall, they were simply going for a ride in their boat offshore the island, when a water horse attacked and killed them. Now Puck’s older brother, Gabe, goes to work at the Hotel, and Puck keeps things going at home for him and their younger brother, Finn.

Puck and Finn are going into town along the beach with Puck’s beloved ordinary horse Dove when they see the first water horse of the year come onto the land.

“Finn flinches as the horse gallops down the beach toward us, and I lay a hand on his elbow, though my own heart is thumping in my ears.

“‘Don’t move,’ I whisper. ‘Don’t-move-don’t-move-don’t-move.’

“I cling to what we’ve been told over and over — that the water horses love a moving target; they love the chase. I make a list of reasons it won’t attack us: We’re motionless, we’re not near the water, we’re next to the Morris, and the water horses despise iron.

“Sure enough, the water horse gallops past us without pause. I can see Finn swallowing, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his skinny neck, and it’s so true, it’s so hard not to flinch until it’s leapt back into the ocean once more.

“They’re here again.

“This is what happens every fall. My parents didn’t follow the races, but I know the shape of the story nonetheless. The closer it gets to November, the more horses the sea spits out. Those islanders who mean to race in future Scorpio Races will often go out in great hunting parties to capture the fresh capaill uisce, which is always dangerous, since the horses are hungry and still sea-mad. And once the new horses emerge, it’s a signal to those who are racing in the current year’s races to begin training the horses they caught the years before — horses that have been comparatively docile until the smell of the fall sea begins to call to the magic inside them.

“During the month of October, until the first of November, the island becomes a map of safe areas and unsafe areas, because unless you’re one of the riders, you don’t want to be around when a capall uisce goes crazy. Our parents tried hard to shield us from the realities of the uisce horses, but it was impossible to avoid it. Friends would miss school because an uisce horse had killed their dog overnight. Dad would have to drive around a ruined carcass on the way to Skarmouth, evidence of where a water horse and a land horse had gotten into a fight. The bells at St. Columba’s would ring midday for the funeral of a fisherman caught unawares on the shore.

“Finn and I don’t need to be told how dangerous the horses are. We know. We know it every day.”

Then the narration alternates back to Sean Kendrick. He’s nineteen now, and he knows the water horses better than anyone else on the island. He has won the Scorpio Races the last four years, riding on Coll, the red stallion his father rode the day he died. But Sean isn’t racing on his own name. He works for Mr. Malvern, the richest man on the island. He wants nothing so much as to own Coll for himself, but Malvern isn’t selling.

Then Puck’s brother Gabe tells her he’s leaving the island to find work. Puck will do anything to keep him here, for any length of time, so she decides to enter the race this year.

But the island men don’t want a woman in the races. They say it’s bad luck, that she doesn’t belong. But Puck has to win. That’s the only way she can save their home, on which Malvern says he’s going to foreclose.

To add to Sean’s difficulties, Malvern’s son Mutt is jealous. Sean has always told Malvern which horse is the safest, so Mutt can ride that one. But now Mutt wants to win, even if it takes riding a horse that’s more than he can handle.

We quickly get drawn into these characters’ lives. They both love the island and the island’s traditions. They both love their horses. And they both really need to win.

Meanwhile, there’s a long tradition of how the training is done in the weeks leading up to the race, and Maggie Stiefvater has the reader mesmerized as Puck and Sean go through those weeks, Puck facing the hostility of the whole town, and Sean facing Mutt Malvern’s hatred and Malvern’s refusal to let him buy Coll. Along the way, they both are in life-or-death danger over and over again.

This book is brilliant. As I said, all my horse-book-loving little girl passions were aroused! But it had more than that. These horses were faster and far more deadly than ordinary horses, so the stakes were much higher. The author also worked in a realistic scenario of a small island totally dependent on the tourism surrounding its annual race, with young people leaving the island for the mainland. Like The Black Stallion, we’ve got a young man who is the only one who can ride a wild stallion, and maybe the horse loves him back, though wild with everyone else. And we’ve got a girl willing to risk everything to stay on the island she loves. No surprise, there’s romance between Sean and Puck, and it’s beautifully, delicately done. As the end approaches, we definitely want both of them to win the race, with so much at stake.

The one little thing I wasn’t crazy about was the character of Mutt Malvern. In general, I don’t like books to have a stereotypical bully. But Maggie Stiefvater made the situation seem quite realistic and we could pretty easily believe Mutt would act the way he did. She did keep him just the right side of stereotypical. And the interaction between Mutt and Sean definitely ratcheted up the tension.

Yes, I confess, even though I never had a horse, I was a stereotypical horse-loving little girl through books. And this book was like those childhood reads, only more so. I have a feeling I will be rereading this book many times. It is that good.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Desires of the Dead, by Kimberly Derting

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Desires of the Dead

by Kimberly Derting

Harper, 2011. 355 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Body Finder, by Kimberly Derting, so I was excited when I heard a sequel was coming out, and checked it out right away.

Bodies that have been killed call to Violet. They affect her senses in a strange way, with a scent or a sound or a feeling. And when she senses them, she has to put them to rest. Disturbingly, the one who killed them has the same echo. That was a problem when she was around her cat, a natural killer of small animals. But when she finds a human body, it seems like she should use her abilities to find the killer.

The plot of this follow-up seemed a little more contrived, a little more relying on coincidence than the first book. However, it’s still classic romantic suspense: The heroine finds out just enough to lead her into deadly danger. How can she get out?

It also appears that the author is setting Violet up to join an organization that uses people with paranormal abilities to solve crimes. That will make it more believable, in future books, when she continues to encounter dead bodies.

So, this is a fun, exciting tale of romantic suspense with that one, creative paranormal twist.

At risk of being a stick-in-the-mud, I do want to give a word of warning for those who would care. Violet’s beautiful romance continues. They were best friends all their lives, and this seems like true love, and they will surely marry one day. They decide to have sex.

Now, this is handled sensitively and believably and not graphically. It’s realistic as to how a serious relationship like that would be likely to go with today’s teens. But it makes me a little sad. As in the first YA novel I ever read where the characters had sex outside of marriage, these ones wonder why they didn’t do it sooner. And I’m a little sad they have to wonder. There’s something really beautiful about saving sex for marriage. Because sex is so amazing, giving it only to someone who’s publicly committed to you for life is beautiful. Safe. Loving. Incredible. (More beautiful if they actually keep the commitment, but still….) If I had read this book when I was young and in love and trying to wait for marriage, it wouldn’t have helped. That’s all I’m saying….

But this is a good book, and an enjoyable and suspenseful read. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first book, and the romance wasn’t as moving, but then committed love isn’t quite as full of thrills and drama as the beginning of a relationship. Violet gets pulled into danger, and it’s pretty natural for someone who loves her to try to keep her out of that, so it’s natural for her to start having secrets…. It will be interesting to see how things continue on, as this book had all the marks of a series beginning.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Chime, by Franny Billingsley

Saturday, June 11th, 2011


by Franny Billingsley

Dial Books, 2011. 361 pages.
Starred Review

Full disclosure: I consider the author, Franny Billingsley, a friend, because we attended the same fabulous writers’ conference in Paris in 2005, so I definitely was predisposed to like this book. However, I was predisposed to like her then because I liked her books so much, so it’s kind of a circular bias — which all started because she’s an outstanding writer.

Though a little way into Chime, I might have quit, because I’m not a fan of dark fantasy, and this book definitely gets dark. However, I was extremely glad I didn’t quit, because by the end I thought this book a masterpiece.

At the start of the book, Briony hates herself, which makes it a little harder for the reader to like her. Here’s how she begins:

“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories — the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

How can you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.

I know you believe you’re giving me a chance — or, rather, it’s the Chime Child giving me the chance. She’s desperate, of course, not to hang an innocent girl again, but believe me: Nothing in my story will absolve me of guilt. It will only prove what I’ve already told you, which is that I’m wicked.

Can’t the Chime Child take my word for it?”

At the start of this story, you suspect it’s a historical novel set in a superstitious time when witches were hanged. We’re sure Briony must not be a witch and this must be a story of how she was falsely accused.

The setting fits. Briony’s father is a clergyman in the Swampsea. Her twin sister, Rose, has something wrong with her so that she still acts like a child. Early on, Rose runs into the swamp while Bryony is talking to their new lodger, the handsome Eldric. They set out looking for her, being sure to bring a Bible Ball — a piece of paper with a Scripture written on it. We assume it’s a quaint superstition.

But right away, Briony hears the Old Ones of the swamp calling to her. She has the second sight. That’s how she knows she’s a witch.

“I tried to disbelieve Stepmother when she told me I’m a witch. I knew she was right, yet I tried to make a case for myself, pecking at the proof Stepmother offered — pecking at it, turning it over, saying it didn’t exist. Then pecking at another bit, and another, until Stepmother took pity on me. If I wasn’t a witch, she asked, how else was it that I had the second sight?”

Later, when they go into the swamp again, Eldric’s tutor doesn’t bring a Bible Ball — and sure enough, he gets lured into the Quicks and swallowed by the swamp. We realize that all the “superstitions” Briony’s been talking about — Mucky Face, the Brownie, the Boggy Mun, and hearing ghosts — It’s all real, and she can see them.

There’s also a mystery. Two months and three days before the start of this story, Briony and Rose’s Stepmother died. Right away Briony tells us there’s something more to that death:

“But the villagers are wrong about Stepmother, and so is Father. She would never kill herself. I’m the one who knew her best, and I know this: Stepmother was hungry for life.”

I’m sure this is a book that will get better with each rereading. The author feeds you the details slowly, and your curiosity builds. How did Stepmother die? Is Briony a witch? What caused the fire in their library? Can Briony get the Boggy Mun to stop the Swamp Cough that’s killing Rose?

Yes, the story starts out dark and sinister, but I love the beautiful way it all ends up, and all the different threads that come together. I’d better say no more than that! This is a book well worth reading and rereading. This is a fantasy novel, true, but it doesn’t read quite like any other.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Coronets and Steel, by Sherwood Smith

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Coronets and Steel

by Sherwood Smith

DAW Books, 2010. 420 pages.
Starred Review
2010 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Fiction

I love Sherwood Smith’s books, and this was my favorite novel for adults I read in 2010. It’s got a touch of fantasy, with grad student Aurelia seeing ghosts during her European adventure, but mostly it’s swashbuckling action, intrigue, and romance in modern-day Europe, in the style of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda.

Aurelia is in Vienna trying to track down her grandparents’ families. Her mother was only two when she and Aurelia’s grandmother left Paris during the war, and her grandmother never talks about her life before Paris. Then she starts meeting people who act like they know her. A handsome young man, who looks like Mr. Darcy, sits next to her at the opera, and the next day runs into her again.

She thinks he’s quite charming, until he drugs her drink, abducts her, and sticks her on a train.

This book has mistaken identity, family secrets, hidden treasure, and royal plots to take over a small country. It’s tremendous fun, and I was delighted to read that Sherwood Smith has planned more books in this series.

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Review of The Princess Plot, by Kirsten Boie

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

The Princess Plot

by Kirsten Boie

Narrated by Polly Lee

Recorded Books, 2009. Originally published in Germany in 2005. 9 CDs. 10.25 hours.
Starred Review

When I checked out The Princess Plot, I expected more of the fantasy tale I usually enjoy, set in a medieval kingdom. This story, however, is set in modern-day Europe, the story of a normal girl who gets embroiled in international affairs. Listening to it made it hard for me to get out of my car when I arrived at my destination!

The narrator did a great job. Since she has a British accent, I was imagining the book set in England. When I reached the end and learned it had been translated from German, that made a lot more sense — the geography of flying to the invented northern kingdom of Scandia fit better. Also, Jenna’s schedule of being out of school with the afternoon off fits with what I know about German teens.

The story is well-done. The plot is a little far-fetched, but the author has you going with it all the way. Jenna thinks of herself as very plain. She’s been brought up by a single mother who’s super-vigilant about Jenna staying safe and protected. So when her best friend wants her to go to an audition for girls their age to play a princess in a movie, she decides to do it without asking her mother’s permission. It seems strange when the producers pick Jenna instead of her friend and insist that she’d be absolutely perfect for the role. It feels strange, but also very, very good.

Then they take Jenna to the Kingdom of Scandia and tell her that she’s going to audition for the role by doing a favor for the princess of Scandia and being her replacement at the celebration of the princess’s birthday. The princess’s father recently died, and she wants to be out of the public eye. Or so they tell Jenna.

The reader knows that the princess has run away, and the regent and his people haven’t found her yet. The reader also knows that the “movie” people are sending Jenna fake text messages from her mother — so her mother does not actually know what’s going on.

We see the plot unfold, little by little. We’re given hints as to why they wanted Jenna. She’s a perfect double for the princess. We see that some North Scandian terrorists have been active lately, and get the feeling it may be connected with that.

The whole thing adds up to a captivating yarn about an ordinary girl — or at least someone who always thought she was ordinary — suddenly finding herself in a foreign country in the middle of a plot that’s way bigger than she is.

A sequel has recently come out, but my library hasn’t ordered it yet, so I will give in and order a copy for myself. I liked the people in this book, and very much would like to read about what happens next.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Author Interview: Clare Dunkle Blog Tour, The House of Dead Maids

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

I’m so excited! Clare B. Dunkle is visiting my blog as part of her Blog Tour in honor of her new book, The House of Dead Maids. And be sure to go all the way down to the end of the post for an awesome Giveaway!

Here’s a link to my review of The House of Dead Maids. And below is our interview. I think you will find that Clare’s answers to my questions will make you eager to read the book!

I’m so pleased to have you visit my blog for my first ever author interview! I think of you as a friend, since we met up a few times when we both lived in Germany, after I posted on your blog how much I loved The Hollow Kingdom. I’ve loved your other books over the years, too, so when I saw an Advanced Reader Copy of The House of Dead Maids at ALA in June, I snapped it up.

I’ll go a little off-topic for my first question. You lived in Germany 7 years and I lived there 10 years. What was your favorite thing about living in Germany?

I think of you as a friend too, Sondy! As I recall, you attended my very first book signing. (I also recall that the bookstore somehow didn’t manage to have any copies of my book on hand—that put quite a damper on the happiness of the occasion.)

What was my favorite thing about living in Germany? Oh, there were so many! But best of all was the ability to travel a short distance and see picturesque and ancient things, like the Porta Nigra, just forty minutes from our doorstep, which the Romans had built eighteen hundred years ago.

(Fun! That’s almost exactly the same answer I would give to that question!)

One thing I love about your books is that they feel so much like historical fiction, it makes the reader believe these events really happened, including the fantastical ones. I don’t normally like ghost stories, but The House of Dead Maids felt so much like reading Jane Eyre, the ghosts just seemed like a natural part of the story. Tell us about the research you did for this book, and to get the voice just right (which you did!).

This manuscript came along at a very rough time in my life—real trouble in my family. I didn’t like to leave home much. I couldn’t even read cheerful books. But I did feel safe spending time with the Brontës because I knew they hadn’t had a perfect family, either, so I turned my attention to Wuthering Heights.

Now, you know how much trouble we had overseas getting our hands on the right research books. Our little base library could get materials only if they were held by another U.S. military base. But by sheerest good chance, I learned that we have a U.S. base in Yorkshire, and from that base I was able to get all kinds of fascinating research books: picture books about the Brontës, collections of Yorkshire folklore, critical readings of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, volumes of Yorkshire history, even books about Yorkshire weather over the last several hundred years. I read them until Brontë and Yorkshire trivia just oozed out my pores. This gave me something to do other than hyperventilate (which is what I did whenever I stopped reading long enough to worry about my family). I was also reading books on pagan rituals at the time, and I reread Frazer’s Golden Bough, whose influence on my manuscript was considerable.

And of course we traveled to Yorkshire and got to visit all the right kinds of Elizabethan mansions and windswept moors. You can see pictures from that trip here on my website.

After I had a pretty good sense of my setting and of the ideas in my characters’ heads, I turned to the problem of narration. I tend to be one of those people who pick up accents without meaning to (and usually end up sounding pretty funny), so to prepare to write the narration, I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall over and over to get the vocabulary and style down pat. I didn’t want to end up sounding like a Victorian; I wanted to end up sounding like a Brontë!

I’ve been reading your other blog tour posts, and one said that you began this book in 2005. Why is it being published so much later?

I finished the manuscript halfway through 2006, and it sold then, but I wound up having to buy this manuscript back from the publishing house that held it. I realized that it was misunderstood there and that if it got released, no one would ever hear a whisper about it.

So we got permission to shop it around again, and we took it to Holt, back to my beloved editor with whom I’d worked on the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy, and Holt bought it back for us. But then Holt had to make room for it on their calendar. It meant losing a couple of years.

I also understand that you have written a memoir with your daughter, and I believe you’ve also written library-related nonfiction. How is writing nonfiction different for you than writing fiction? How is your process different?

In fact, I did so much research on Wuthering Heights and on the Brontës that I wrote a ton of nonfiction connected with The House of Dead Maids. I found that I had a lot that I wanted to say about those subjects, and I didn’t want all that hard work to go to waste. You can find my essays about the Brontës on my website at this page. (The last time I printed all the Brontë stuff out, I think it came to about seventy pages, single-spaced.)

Writing this sort of research essay is like writing my library-related articles: it’s easier to do than writing fiction, but I have to marshal my facts first. I try to line up the facts I intend to cover and put the direct quotations I intend to use into the right order in my Word file. Then I try to write the text around those quotations. But in practice, that breaks down. I never seem to have every quotation I want in the right spot, so there’s a lot of breaking off and hunting up citations and quotations—big untidy piles of books with little Post-It flags sticking out of them, marked up printouts scattered around, that sort of thing.

Writing my daughter’s memoir has been different. That’s been more like writing fiction. It’s channeling characters, even if those characters are us. We’re going for emotional effect, of course, not dry facts. But the part of it that isn’t like writing anything I’ve done before, fiction or nonfiction, is the pain. You know that an author has to feel the pain of the characters in order for the reader to feel it too—now imagine writing your worst memories and nightmares down and being sure that you keep writing out all that pain. I won’t be sorry when revisions are over for this one.

Back when I talked to you in Germany, you didn’t read fiction while you were writing fiction. Has that changed? Read any good books lately?

I still tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, and my research tends to dictate my fiction list anyway. But I do read fiction nowadays, although I go on weird kicks. Earlier this year, I read as much Shirley Jackson as I could get my hands on, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Sundial have become two of my favorite books. But lately I’ve been reading sea tales.

Don’t tell Amazon this, but I use the Calibre program to produce mobi files out of full-text Google books (those that are in the public domain, that is). Then I can read them easily on my Kindle DX, which I just adore. The last book I read this way was H.G. Wells’ quirky little tale, The Sea Lady, and I also recently read William McFee’s Casuals of the Sea, a rambling story from the 1910’s that more people should know. And of course I’m reading Joseph Conrad. I appreciate him more now than I did when he was assigned in school. I’m fascinated by the contrast he reveals between the simple, straightforward life of a man at sea and the enormous complications of life in a foreign port. It’s obvious that this was the bane of Conrad’s existence when he was a seaman.

Being an ex-librarian, I like free stuff, so I can’t resist mentioning a favorite source of audio recordings: That’s a volunteer-only site for public domain books on tape. I download them in mp3 format and then play them on my phone or mp3 player while I’m working out. I’m currently listening to the second of the two Treasure Island recordings, the one done by Dr. Adrian Praetzellis of Sonoma University. He’s a splendid narrator! A professional actor couldn’t do better. You can find a complete list of his librivox readings here.

I see that your publicity photo was taken in Venice. Do you have plans to write a book set in Venice?

I loved Venice, and I thought seriously about writing a story set in Italy, but ultimately, I decided against it, at least for the time being. I’ve been fascinated this year by Shirley Jackson and her ability to make a bland, familiar setting feel eerie and unsafe. It’s that juxtaposition of the known and the unknown that leaves readers looking over their shoulders. So I decided against Italy. It’s too exotic. Any creeps readers got from reading about it wouldn’t stay with them when they closed the book.

I’ve never read Wuthering Heights, but when I talked to you before this interview, you said it would be okay to read this book first, since it is a prequel. You also said you hoped your book would win new readers for Wuthering Heights, and I want to tell you that for this reader at least, you completely succeeded! I want to find out how these things play out in Heathcliff’s life!

Fantastic! That’s exactly why I wrote The House of Dead Maids. I hope you enjoy Wuthering Heights. Those first three chapters are so full of dark surprises and so splendidly written that I envy you getting to read them for the first time. Then you can consult my webpages about the book’s mysteries and motifs and see if you agree with what I’ve written there.

Clare, thanks so much for visiting my blog!

It was my pleasure. You were there at my first signing—now I’m here at your first author interview. Here’s to many more of both!

Readers, be sure to catch her next stop at! And meanwhile, here’s a fantastic giveaway in conjunction with the blog tour!

Special Brontë-themed giveaway!

One Grand Prize winner will receive The House of Dead Maids, a gorgeous Brontë sisters pocket mirror, and the HarperTeen edition of Wuthering Heights! Two lucky runners-up will receive the two books. To enter, send an email to with your name, email address, and shipping address (if you’re under 13, submit a parent’s name and email address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on October 31. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on November 1 and notified via email.

Review of House of Dead Maids, by Clare B. Dunkle

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

House of Dead Maids

by Clare B. Dunkle

Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2010. 146 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve never liked ghost stories. Too much imagination, I think. So I wasn’t planning to pick up this particular Advanced Review Copy at ALA Annual Conference — until I saw the author’s name, and then I snatched it up.

I consider Clare Dunkle a friend. We met when we both lived in Germany, after I raved about her first book, The Hollow Kingdom, on my blog right before she was doing a book signing at the local BX. We met up a few times after that, and I got to know her and like her. And her books continue to be fabulous. Here are my reviews of Close Kin, In the Coils of the Snake, By These Ten Bones, and The Sky Inside.

I still put off reading it, since the creepy cover freaked me out. (Though I’m sure it will entice many teen readers who come to the library looking for “scary” books.) But then I learned that Clare was doing a Blog Tour and asked her to include my site. So on October 14, 2010, I’m posting my first Author Interview! Her answers to my questions turned out to be fascinating, so I’m excited about it.

I read the book surrounded by people on a jet with my reading light firmly ON. I was coming back from the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium in Boston. I had decided against reading it alone in my hotel room in a strange city! That was a good choice, because the book is definitely creepy. But it’s intriguing, and definitely got me hooked.

The House of Dead Maids is a prequel to Wuthering Heights. Now, believe it or not, I’ve never read Wuthering Heights. I had meant to, and even bought a paperback copy. I think I decided not to after all when my German landlady mentioned that she had to read it in her English class, and she thought it was awful. She asked why anyone would want to read such a horrible story. So I put it a little further on the back burner.

Clare assured me that I could read The House of Dead Maids before reading Wuthering Heights, and she’d expressed that she was hoping her book would get more readers for the classic novel. I do intend to finally read Wuthering Heights now and see what I think. I did read Jane Eyre long ago and completely fell in love with it. Reading The House of Dead Maids, Clare Dunkle completely succeeded in creating a voice that reminded me of Jane Eyre. She says she was trying to write like the Brontes, and I think she did. The voice pulled me into that world and that kind of mindset.

As always, Clare’s writing feels like it was actually written at the time — which makes you believe all the more that the supernatural happenings “really” happened. In this case, she wove in superstitions and rituals of the time for a terribly creepy tale.

Tabby Ackroyd is the narrator, an orphan taken to serve at a creepy mansion. She is given charge of a wild young boy who claims to be master of the house. Tabby doesn’t know what happened to the orphan who went there to serve before her. But then she sees ghosts all over the house and grounds. It turns out they were both brought there for a sinister purpose.

I like the way Tabby Ackroyd turns out to be the housekeeper of the Bronte sisters. I found it quite plausible that she told the girls, who loved ghost stories, this tale of a wild boy who wanted to be master. It was left for them to tell what became of him….

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Source: This review is based on an Advance Reader’s Edition picked up at ALA.

Review of White Cat, by Holly Black

Friday, August 6th, 2010

White Cat

The Curse Workers, Book One

by Holly Black

Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), New York, 2010. 310 pages.
Starred Review

“I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.

“Above me are starts. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.

“I have no memory of climbing the stairs up to the roof. I don’t even know how to get where I am, which is a problem since I’m going to have to get down, ideally in a way that doesn’t involve dying.”

If that isn’t a cliff-hanger beginning, it’s certainly a roof-balancing one. Cassel was dreaming of a white cat. So why is there a white cat outside, watching him on the roof? Later in the first chapter, Cassel tells us:

“Don’t be too sympathetic. Here’s the essential truth about me: I killed a girl when I was fourteen. Her name was Lila, she was my best friend, and I loved her. I killed her anyway. There’s a lot of the murder that seems like a blur, but my brothers found me standing over her body with blood on my hands and a weird smile tugging at my mouth. What I remember most is the feeling I had looking down at Lila — the giddy glee of having gotten away with something.”

I had already scanned the first chapter and decided not to turn it back in (because I have too many books checked out), when I met Holly Black at ALA and she talked about her book — and I moved it to the top of my stack of books to read. I was not disappointed. This book was one I had to keep reading once I started.

Cassel’s world is like ours, only certain people are born with the ability to perform curses. You can curse someone by touching their skin with your hands. But cursing is illegal, and everyone in that society wears gloves all the time.

Curses run a wide range. The most common are luck workers, but there are also people who can change memories, or people like Cassel’s mother who can give you whatever emotion she wants you to have. There are even people who can kill with a curse. Most rare of all are people who can transform things into something else.

All the curses have blowback to the person performing them — a strong reaction proportionate to the curse being performed. So if a memory worker changes a lot of memories, he will start forgetting things himself, for example.

However, Cassel is part of a family of curse workers — and also a family deeply involved in the world of organized crime. He’s the only one in his family who does not have the ability to curse anyone, and he’s been trying to lead a normal life at a private school, trying to forget about what he did to Lila, the reigning crime lord’s daughter. (His family covered it up.)

Now, though, with this sleep-walking caper at the beginning of the book, the school isn’t going to let him live in the dorm. He has to move back in with his brothers, which puts him in the thick of things again.

Holly Black has intricately and beautifully spun a world that seems plausible and real, even with those amazing premises. There are plots and counterplots and counter-counterplots, that get tied up cleverly at the end. Along the way, Cassel learns about making friends and trusting them.

I love that this is called “Book One,” because I can’t wait to read more about this fascinating world. This is a skilfully crafted novel that will make you look at gloves in a whole new way.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Body Finder, by Kimberly Derting

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

The Body Finder

by Kimberly Derting

Harper, 2010. 329 pages.
Starred Review

Starting to read this book late at night, thinking I could read only a chapter or two because I was so tired, was a major mistake. No, this was one of those books that got me enjoying it far too much to look at the clock until I’d read the last page.

I hope that fans of Twilight will find this book. There’s the same feeling of love destined to happen (with a lot more reasons for it), a paranormal element, the heroine lives in Washington State, her uncle (okay not her father) is a police chief, she falls down a lot (though not quite as often as Bella), and her life is saved by her true love. In fact, with those rescues, I was reminded of good old-fashioned romantic suspense, especially the Mary Stewart novels I devoured in seventh and eighth grade. Best of all, the writing is excellent and the romance is exquisitely done. I think teens will love this book. I know I did!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story opens with a prologue when 8-year-old Violet hears a strange sound her father can’t hear, follows it through the woods, and finds a dead body.

Then we skip to the beginning of Violet’s junior year of high school. Like all teens, she doesn’t feel like she fits in, but she does have some legitimate reasons:

“After all, how many girls had inherited the ability to locate the dead, or at least those who had been murdered? How many little girls had spent hours of their childhood scouring the woods in search of dead animals left behind by feral predators? How many had created their own personal cemeteries in their backyards to bury the carnage they’d found, so the little souls could rest in peace?”

Something weird happened to Violet over the summer. Her best friend, Jay, whom she’s known since they were six years old, changed over the summer. They have done everything together since first grade, and he even knows her secret and keeps it safe. He even helped her make the little graves, by her side, not as if it were something strange. But now…

“She hated these new, unknown feelings that seemed to assault her whenever he was around, and sometimes even when he was only in her thoughts. She felt like she was no longer in control of her own body, and her traitorous reactions were only slightly more embarrassing than her treacherous thoughts.

“She was starting to feel like he was toxic to her.

“That, or she was seriously losing her mind, because that was the only way she could possibly explain the ridiculous butterflies she got whenever Jay was close to her. And what really irritated Violet was that he seemed to be completely oblivious of these new, and completely insane, reactions she was having to him. Obviously, whatever she had wasn’t contagious.”

As if that weren’t enough to deal with, on the first weekend after school has started, she goes to an end-of-summer party at a lake. She’s riding a Wind Runner with Jay when she feels drawn to a certain part of the lake, has to see what’s there, and finds the body of a teenage girl.

When the next girl disappears, people start to get worried.

Now, on top of Violet’s ability to find the bodies of murdered creatures, it turns out that the same echo of the creature sticks to its murderer. She learned this over the years from her cat, a natural predator. If she found a certain dead mouse by an odd taste in her mouth, she’ll have the exact same sensation when her cat, its killer, comes around.

So shouldn’t she use this ability to find whoever murdered the girl? Shouldn’t she finally use her bizarre “gift” for a valuable purpose?

This book reminded me of Num8ers, by Rachel Ward. Both books tell a story in contemporary times with one little addition — a girl who has a paranormal, rather morbid gift. However, The Body Finder tells a story that is much less dark. Instead of being an orphan, Violet has a warm and loving family. She is protected by her parents, her police chief uncle, and Jay, all of whom know about her gift.

But when you go looking for a murderer, you’re bound to run into trouble. Her family and Jay are protective, but they underestimate the strength of Violet’s gift and her obsession as more girls are killed.

Of course, Violet’s putting herself in danger only gets Jay angry and adds to the misunderstanding between the two of them.

This book has more making out than the Mary Stewart novels I used to read in junior high. But other than that, you can think of this as good old-fashioned romantic suspense. Pick this up when you’re in the mood for a dose of danger plus true love. You’d think a book called The Body Finder would be gruesome, but I found it to be sweet.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.